In Chasing Carrots‘ Cosmonautica, you take on the role of a space ship’s captain and have the luxury of hiring your own crew, based on their skills and personality. Without realizing, I suddenly found my crew to be composed of seven lovely and quirky ladies and a giant space snail janitor. I am currently waiting for Joss Whedon to call me about the movie rights. Anyway, if you’re wondering what would happen if the X series or Elite got drunk one night and had a baby with Fallout Shelter and The Sims, then you’ve come to the right place.
The Universe of Cosmonautica
The campaign mode drops you in medias res having just woken up from an amnesia-inducing experience. You are greeted by the ship’s AI parrot N1L and quickly invested as captain of the good ship whateveryouwanttocallit. Over the course of the following few missions Cosmonautica helps you get familiar with the rules and mechanics. In short, you are the captain of a space ship and a crew consisting between one and eight members with various skillsets and perks. As they gain levels, your crew members’ skills grow, as do their salaries and their needs. This is where the Fallout Shelter/The Sims aspect comes into play. Your ship has a limited amount of rooms, so you will often have to balance between your freight/combat efficiency and satisfying the needs of your crew.
While at first your crew will probably consist of only a pilot and a janitor or gunner and they will be perfectly satisfied with a simple living quarters, a toilet and a vending machine for food. However, once one of your crew reaches level three or four, they will suddenly require hygiene as well (presumably you don’t get dirty while being a rookie). But in order to be able to purchase a bathroom that consists of both a toilet and a shower, you need one additional room on the ship and the research for the facility itself. However, for research you need both a science lab (two rooms) and a scientist on board. These requirements slowly pile up and snowball, driving your need for better income and bigger, faster, hardier ships.
You can acquire funds in Cosmonautica in one of three ways, similarly to the Elite or X series. The first, safest and, for me, most reliable was trading. Each solar system consists of three rings, of which at first only the first will be unlocked, the rest requiring your scientists to put in hours down at the lab. Each ring has a number of stations which in turn have a number of facilities that import several goods and export several other. This results in some simplistic production chains (I counted at most three or four tiers) with each tier being more profitable than the previous.
For example, you can buy steel and tools from their production facilities (which probably require energy, water, in turn), take them to the robot manufacturing plant, pick up some robots, drop them off at the game development studio, pick up some games and go sell them at the arcade. None of these steps are mandatory. You could ferry between the game developer and arcade indefinitely, but stocks do take a while to replenish, and travelling with your cargo hold empty is a drain on your funds, as time inexorably flows forward even in the depths of space and what are we, if not but specks of dust in the infinite void of space? Plus, your crew needs to be paid, so there’s that. The biggest challenge in trading is discovering the most profitable and efficient trade route in each solar system.
The second way to earn your living is good old-fashioned space combat. For this, you will need at the very least a crew member trained in shooting, a turret hardpoint on your ship hull, a turret room and an ammo stockpile room. Combat, at its most basic, consists of you giving commands to your pilot to either follow, flee, circle or ram the enemy ship, and your shooter to fire rounds at it until one is either dead or surrenders. Surrender, in Cosmonautica, can happen in one of two ways: either you contact the opponent and pay a small fee to be let go (and this is how I handled being attacked for the entirety of the early game, since most pirates are content to let you go for free before combat even begins) and being contacted yourself and paid off to let the assailant live. I found the latter option to be far more lucrative than actually finishing the fight and looting the destroyed opposing ship, since their loot is random and there’s not always a local market for it.
Apparently if you’re in a religious system it’s really hard to find someone to sell porno mags to. Later in the game more weapons become available, you can use a shield system to mitigate some of the damage and even hack systems or defend them from hacking. This require more dedicated rooms and more specialized crew members. Personally, I found combat to be very difficult without a ship that has at least two turrets and ammo bays, one shield room (that’s five rooms already) and optionally, a hacking room (another two) and consequently did not engage into combat until I had the third available cargo ship. Dedicated combat ships offer more versatility in battle, but leave little room (literally) for satisfying your crew’s needs.
The third way to earn cash is running missions from the various stations that are usually variations on one of the above (with the addition of transporting passengers in specially designed quarters and smuggling illegal goods past the authorities) but with a larger profit margin, a time limit and a penalty for failure. Time, in Cosmonautica, is divided into cycles (days), each being further divided into four shifts. Travel takes a varying amount of time, based on distance from your current position to the calculated position of your destination based on your speed. Thus you can’t really memorize how much travel takes from point A to point B, because both are orbiting a star at different speeds. You can fast forward time almost whenever you want and you’ll be doing it a lot while travelling, but hey, at least you can look at what your crew is doing. Speaking of which, SEGUE!
Your band of merry spacemen, women, other
Each of your eight crew members is unique. I mean that almost literally, since their names, faces, skills, personality traits, likes, dislikes and backstories are randomly generated. This may seem like a lot to manage, but as you’re about to find out, it really isn’t. The most important attribute of your characters is the skill they come with out of the box. Over time they may unlock up to three skills, being able to help with other tasks when needed. The tasks available to each of them are based on their skills and you decide what each of your characters do during each of the four shifts.
I’ve noticed that they are perfectly fine to share beds as long as their shifts alternate, they spend their leisure time taking care of their needs and bodily functions and they get cranky if they need to work more than two shifts out of four. Thus, one of Cosmonautica‘s challenges is efficiently designing your crew’s work plan. For example, a crew consisting of a pilot, a janitor, a cleaner and a scientist can live perfectly well in a quarters with two bunks if the pilot and janitor work during shifts I and III, while the cleaner and scientist work during II and IV. Of course, having all of the shifts covered for a certain task will increase efficiency, such as your overall ship speed if you have two pilots alternating shifts. I did this by using a hacker/pilot since the hacker is literally useless outside of combat and just sits on her ass, mooching off your hard-earned cash.
Your crew also have preferences which can make them befriend or despise a certain other member. For example, my pilot, Rihanna absolutely hates Ploooyng the janitor because while she likes protein-based food, he enjoys carbohydrates. I know, right?! The audacity! These relationships and your crew’s overall satisfaction with their needs impact their mood. A low level crew only needs food, sleep and a toilet. As they advance, however, they start requiring hygiene, as mentioned above, exercise, entertainment and socializing. They also have traits that make them require more or less of something, get sick more or less often and so on and so forth. I personally found all of this to be ultimately pointless because it was ridiculously easy keeping their moods maxed out at all times, regardless of relationships and health issues. Your crew also have a list of personality quirks that as far as I could tell are just for flavor and don’t really do anything. Sadly, this poor balancing doesn’t stop at the crew management module, but instead continues into CLEVER SEGUE NUMBER TWO!
All is not well in the galaxy, alas
You can tell Cosmonautica is a labor of love, and thus it breaks my heart to bring to you this list of grievances, because while I enjoyed my time with it, my sacred duty as an amateur part-time games reviewer dictates that I tell you about them as well.
I was surprised to find out that the game was a mobile port, because the graphics, while not state-of-the-art look decent and carefully designed. It has a cartoonish aesthetic with the ships looking like chubby space-faring tugboats. It’s pretty to look at, from an art style standpoint, but the resolution is capped at 1680 x 900. I’m really not a huge graphics buff, but I like my games, if not in Full HD, at least with a 16:10 aspect ratio. I played most of the game windowed as a result. The sound design, at least, is pretty solid, the sound and music giving me a light-hearted EVE Online vibe, from back when I used to enjoy playing with spreadsheets in space. However, the game is subject to the occasionaly UI glitch, such as the crew activities being erroneusly displayed (I had my pretty girl pilot space person displayed as Taking A Dump for several days), and even the occasional crash.
Some aspects of the UI, on the other hand, are just poorly designed. Sometimes the solar map displays a short summary of each planet and what you can find there, sometimes it does not. The galaxy map is almost impossible to navigate once you research and unlock multiple sectors. No search function is available, you can only zoom out so much and sometimes the story wants you to go to a specific system, so good luck finding it. You may notice I haven’t spoken a lot about Cosmonautica‘s story. That’s because, while funny and mildly interesting, it has zero sense of urgency and it’s interrupted by long periods of grinding in order to progress, sometimes making me wonder why even differentiate between “campaign” and “sandbox” mode. Eventually I stopped trying to grind in my small, useless ship and took out a loan in order to buy a better and more profitable one.
The whole game, actually, suffers from balancing issues. I already spoke about how hard it is to get into fighting, with one turret being too few and two being more than enough, combat being either very tough or trivial and inconsequential. It is entirely too easy to keep your crew satisfied, even with their growing needs, but most egregious of all was how quickly I researched every single ship module and upgrade during one of the very early stretches of story mode grinding. And with a fully researched tech tree, and a medium sized hauler ship, armed with two turrets and a torpedo bay, that I had dubbed The Leviathan I could: cater to every single need of eight people, transport up to eight passengers, transport a hefty amount of goods and take on any enemy ship that I went up against. Additionally, the following positions became obsolete, some even before hiring anyone to do them: medic and cook (the upgraded kitchen and medical quarters come with a robot cook and medic respectively), cleaner and janitor (they have robots for that too) and even the scientists, which I only needed in order to unlock more galaxy sectors and operate my shields. Come to think of it…taking out loans because you don’t feel like grinding? Jobs replaced by robots? Scientists being viewed as useless? Why, Cosmonautica might just be clever societal commentary!
It’s hard for me to accurately summarize my experience with this game. It’s definitely lovingly made and might even be undergoing some overhauls now that it’s on Steam. The cross-platform save feature is without question something that I would love to see more games doing (do you hear that, X-COM: Enemy Within?) but its flaws, small as they may be, quickly add up and ultimately degrade the experience.
For what it’s worth, I played and enjoyed Cosmonautica for 20 full hours before suddenly deciding that I really wasn’t doing anything new and stopping. As you can see in the rest of this review, it is nothing if not feature-rich. If that sounds like something that you’d be ok with, then I wager you’ll enjoy your time with it.
Disclaimer: Game copy supplied by developer/publisher
This game was reviewed on the PC